by Polly Bresnick
Etta James, who passed away last week, could not only sing with searing soul that simultaneously strikes fear and sorrow and strength into the hearts of anyone who hears her voice, but she also bridged the gap between R&B and Rock & Roll back when people were still impressed by that kind of feat, way back when a band of light-skinned black girls was called the "Creolettes," way back when the song title "Roll With Me Henry" was so suggestive for a fourteen-year-old girl to sing, that the title was changed for the radio. Her songs have helped me muscle through serious heartsickness, and her signature wolf/owl howl/hoot grace notes give me chills even though I know each one by heart. I won't go into her haunting and solemn vocal opening to a performance of "Something's Got a Hold On Me" in 1966 on a television show called The !!!! Beat. And don't even get me started about all her songs about being heartbroken at a wedding and desperately wishing to speak now instead of forever holding her peace.
She was 73 years old, mentally and physically ill, but her death was a strange thing in my mind. Each time I listen to her soul-wringing, tear-salted mournfully lonesome rants it sounds a bit like the intimate sound of someone dying a little death, having a petit mort, an orgasm or paroxysm or all of the above. Her songs so convincingly chronicle her experience of emotional murder by loves who left her — got married or cheated or lied or didn't listen or didn't trust her or just didn't love her back — that in my mind, she died and revived enough times to achieve immortal status. This isn't to say that I didn't feel sad to learn she'd died. I did, a nagging bit of sad, like a pebble in my boot. I hadn't been following her later career very closely. I only knew she'd recently released an album because my father asked for it for his birthday. What she did with her voice and her soul when it was still so street, so raw and ambitious and broad, like her life actually depended on getting the pain out — "W.O.M.A.N.," "I'd Rather Go Blind," "All Could Do Was Cry," "Stop the Wedding," "Something's Got a Hold on Me" — these are the songs that go and put a hurtin' on me. But, when Etta died, a friend pointed out to me a late-career recording of her cover of Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed." Admittedly, it caught my ear initially for what I thought to be it's absurdity. But then it lingered.
Maybe I'm being an overly sensitive post-post-feminist, but I hear an interesting note of old-fashioned chauvinism in the opening lines of this track: "Man's got his woman / to take his seed, he's got the power / she's got the need." It quickly becomes clear, though, who's side this song is on. Etta's version is a pained and sweating, R&B/gospel, unsentimental sermon/anthem for abused women, while Alice Cooper's (especially next to Etta's) sounds more like a soundtrack for a domestic violence PSA or a commercial for a charity to help battered women in inner city Detroit. Etta owns the lower register of this song with rumbling force that is bigger and louder and more convincing than any garden-variety "girl power" or feminism, the surface of which Alice Cooper seems to be attempting to scratch with his wimpy and predictable smooth rock growl-harmonize-falsetto-hook-bridge-jam. Etta James breathes life into the song's disturbing subject matter with more bone-rattling truth and with more survivor's spirit than Alice Cooper (or perhaps any other singer for that matter) can.
I like thinking about how in the weird world she ever came across the song. It makes me think she was more open-minded about music than I might have thought. Maybe she heard it on the car radio. Or maybe someone at Betty Ford played it on the boombox in the common room. Or maybe her manager was friends with Alice Cooper's manager. However she found her way to those lyrics, it doesn't shock me that, once she heard them, she understood she'd sing them. Her songs bring you back to times the world opened up beneath you, and you fall in with her, but then her voice finds your hand in the deep darkness and yanks you up to where you find a sturdy stone to grip at the edge of the crevasse. Her voice and that stone save you from falling every time. She was an expert on bleeding women. I'm glad she found this song. She found its truer cry.
I like to believe she succeeded at this because she felt she had sung out so much pain that she'd begun to channel the collective pain of all women. She drank the sorrow and carried it inside of her, bore the burden on behalf of all women who didn't think we were pretty or lovable or didn't think we deserved to be treated like shit and knew exactly how it felt, but didn't quite know how to vocalize those feelings until Etta did it, and we all said, "YES!" and we maybe even said, "YES, GIRL!" and sometimes we whispered, "Sing it," and, "Mmmhhmm," and other times we were without words because our breath had been taken away by the glowing truth bleeding out of the voice pouring out of Etta's lungs and through our speakers and into our ears and deep down into our souls which were healed, if only for a short time, if only until the end of the song.
"Only Women Bleed" mp3
by Etta James, 1999.
available on Heart of a Woman
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Thursday, December 17, 2009
by Pamela Harris
Years ago I got invited to a book party at Warner Leroy’s apartment. A foodie Jew, Mr. Leroy owned Tavern on the Green, The Russian Tea Room, et al. He came from a line of uber Jews -- his grandfather, Harry Warner, was Warner Brothers. and his father, Mervyn, produced The Wizard of Oz. (When filming completed, little Warner inherited little Toto.)
His apartment was in the Dakota -- Roman Polanski, naughty Jew, shot Rosemary’s Baby there -- a gothic fantasy of a building that looks massive from the outside, but inside is divided into quadrants around a large courtyard. (It was built this way to let more light in.)
The party was for a best of New York cookbook and took place on the last night of Hanukkah. My date was a nice Jewish boy. We entered the courtyard and a friendly gatekeeper directed us to a rickety elevator that was manned by an equally rickety attendant. The elevator creaked to a rise and a well-dressed woman behind me whispered to no one, "Warner’s neighbor is Leonard Bernstein," West Side Story musical genius Jew. But he also wrote "Kaddish" and "Mass."
And he was in The Revuers with Judy Holliday, a fellow Dakotan. I knew who she was because when I was a kid my dad and I would watch Creature Double Feature movies on Channel 38 and I’d sometimes get screaming. Most of the movies looked like they were made out of paper plates and glue, but occasionally the programmers would slip in Terror in the Wax Museum or Night of the Living Dead and I’d howl in the pillows until my dad changed the channel. The day he flipped the channel to Born Yesterday, a Judy Holliday (b. Judy Tuvim) fan was born.
I was wishing that Judy was still alive; maybe I’d see her upstairs and we’d share a latke, when the elevator stopped and a smiling blond welcomed us through the apartment’s heavy doors. She took our coats and we walked through a foyer into a hall. The ceilings were so high a T. Rex could roam upright -- Marc Bolan, singing Jew (b. Marc Feld) was front man for the band T. Rex -- and my date and I immediately snagged two grease-free mini latkes off a passing tray. We made our way toward the sound of the crowd, trying to be elegant as we downed three caviar blintzes and a quick glass of champagne.
At the end of the hall was a small living room. A Willem de Kooning – husband of Jewish painter Elaine - hung across from a Jasper Johns and I glimpsed the edge of what looked like a drawing by macho Jew Richard Serra. Central Park was lit up through deep-pocketed windows and the buildings far across the park were framed in a way that made their staccato heights look like a Menorah. I could see the old territory of Dutch Schultz – gangster Jew (b. Arthur Flegenheimer) –- and from this vantage point I understood why he wanted to own the city. This was New York, just like I pictured it.
My date wrote for an entertainment magazine and knew everyone by sight. We stood by the windows and stuffed our faces as he pointed out publishers and company presidents. I perked up when he gestured to a nondescript 30-something man. “His last name is Witz. I think he’s related to Gene Simmons.”
My date nodded. “Simmons’s real name is Chaim Witz. He went to a yeshiva in Brooklyn.” My date grabbed four champagnes off a passing tray and gave me two. “Aerosmith’s drummer, Joey Kramer, is from the Bronx.” We downed the champagne and he gracefully cornered four more glasses. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl Jew, quietly sang from speakers. “Blue Oyster Cult – Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzter started that band. Us Jews can rock.”
My date was nebbishy, nasally and nerdy. I was beginning to like him. We finished off two more glasses of champagne and lined up six more on the window seat. “Mama Cass was a big Jew,” I said. “So was Carole King.” Now he was starting to like me.
I snagged a handful of mushroom cups – I was getting drunk – and handed some to my date. “My uncle was a poet,” I said. “He lived on Leonard Cohen’s couch until he ended up in a loony bin in Massachusetts.” Pop pop – I tossed the mushroom cups down my throat and chased them with champagne.
My cuter by the second date did the same then said, “My uncle Milton knew Barry Manilow when he was Barry Alan Pincus.” Why that was funny I don’t know but I snorted a laugh and champagne came out my nose. Wendy Wasserstein – Pulitzer Prize winning Jew – grinned at us then took a seat next to a man who looked like Don Kirschner, the monotone maven of 1970’s televised Friday Night Rock Concerts.
“Oh my god – “ I said a little too loud then pointed my elbow at Joey Ramone, punk Jew (b. Jeffrey Hyman.) My night was made. I had just been turned on to "I Believe in Miracles" and had worn the type off the ‘repeat’ button on my boom box. My date stumbled over to talk with him and I went to look for a bathroom.
A waiter pointed me past an elegant staircase into a master bedroom. I went into the master bath and as I washed my hands it registered that the little painting above the sink was a Renoir. I wanted to put it in my pants, the way we used to steal steaks from Waldbaums when I was in art school. Was that who I was still? Was that who I wanted to be? I smoothed the hand towels out and exited fast.
My date was at the windows, waiting for me. I grew up a lone Jew in New England’s Irish Catholic-ville where the Festival of Lights was Santa and his sleigh bells. I always felt too Jewish for there and not Jewish enough for New York. I walked to my date and we stood side by side, silent, looking out over the lights of Central Park. Etta James’s "At Last" came on the stereo and suddenly too much or not enough no longer mattered.
"At Last" mp3
by Etta James, 1961.
available on At Last!
"Telegram Sam" mp3
by T. Rex, 1972.
available on The Slider
"I Believe In Miracles" mp3
by The Ramones, 1989.
available on Brain Drain
"The Magazine Seller" mp3
by The Revuers, 1940.
Judy Holliday, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolf Green
from NBC Radio Broadcast
"Cities on Flame With Rock & Roll" mp3
by Blue Öyster Cult, 1972.
available on Blue Öyster Cult
"Seasons of Wither" mp3
by Aerosmith, 1974.
available on Get Your Wings
"Got A Feelin'" mp3
by The Mamas and the Papas, 1966.
available on Gold
"Way Over Yonder" mp3
by Carole King, 1971.
available on Tapestry
The intro track to the Channel 38 Creature Double Feature.
[ed. note: It's very scary.]
by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1973.
available on Brain Salad Surgery